IFANCA and Halal: How It All Began
Roger M. Othman
Once upon a time, there was a young man by the name of Umar. He grew up in a farming community. Umar was a shepherd and he tended his sheep. There was an open prairie where he could graze his herd. By the grace of God they always had enough rain so that the sheep had ample grass to eat. From his sheep, Umar obtained milk, which he and his family would drink and use to make cheese, butter and yogurt. For as long as he could remember, he used a little of the last batch to make the next batch of yogurt and cheese. There were no other ingredients except salt, he added to the cheese. Salt helped to keep the cheese a little longer. It had to be eaten within a few days, because there were no refrigerators.
Umar’s neighbor, Ali, owned a farm. Ali divided his farm into three sections. In one, he had trees, orange trees and peach trees and even walnut and almond trees. In the second section, he planted watermelons and vegetables. Throughout the year, Ali harvested tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, potatoes, beans, okra and many other vegetables from this section. In the third section, he planted wheat. Ali learned that it was best to rotate his crop, so each year he would change what he planted in each section. One year he planted vegetables and the next year he planted wheat. This way his yield was improved in both crops. Since he had these sections, he always had vegetables and wheat. The rains that grew grass for Umar’s sheep, also provided the water for Ali’s fruits and vegetables and wheat. What a stew Ali could make with his variety of vegetables.
Ali’s neighbor was Abdullah. Abdullah had a farm too. Abdullah’s farm had two sections, one with olive trees and the other with date palms. Both farms provided ample supplies of olives and dates. Abdullah would take some of the olives to the crusher and produce olive oil and leave the rest to be eaten as olives. Some of the dates would be eaten as fresh and the others would be dried.
And then there was Hassan, who owned a chicken farm. Boy he had hundreds of chickens running around, laying eggs all over the place. He had fun collecting the eggs. The chickens always found something to eat. Hassan’s family ate all the eggs they could eat and some chickens too. The rest they bartered with other farmers, and the other farmers bartered their goods too.
The people of this village got all their food, from Umar, Ali, Abdullah or Hassan. They had bread products from the wheat, fruits and vegetables, peanuts, meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. Everything they needed for a healthy, happy life. No one used pesticides, there were no genetically engineered seeds, and the sheep and chicken did not receive hormones in their feed. The sheep grazed on what grew naturally. They provided fresh milk, which was used daily for drinking or to make cheese, butter and yogurt.
The wheat was natural, the vegetables were natural, the fruit was natural and the olives were natural. No additives, no preservatives, no genetically engineered foods or drugs, no enzymes or hormones. Everything was natural. The only additive was salt. In the morning, everyone would buy food for the day, always fresh. Fresh milk and yogurt, fresh meat from lamb and chicken, fresh eggs. The wheat had been produced in the previous harvest and so were the olives and dates. Life was simple, but it had its own unique features. Imagine, seeing your chicken slaughtered in front of your eyes. Not me, give me the frozen or packaged stuff any day.
Some of you may know a person like Umar or Ali, some of us may have actually been like Abdullah or Hassan but most of us only heard or read about such people. One may say that must have been a tough life. It can.t compare with walking into a supermarket and buying T-bone steak, homogenized milk or strawberry yogurt, arid your favorite candy.
The expansion of the world population and the advent of new technologies have enabled us to produce more foods with fewer people and to make those foods last a lot longer. Transportation systems allow us to deliver these foods to every market on earth. Today when you eat an apple you can.t be sure if it was grown in Washington State, Brazil or Pakistan. That hamburger you just ate may have come from a cow raised in Washington, Michigan or Chile. You just don’t know where your food comes from. It is also difficult to know where the ingredients came from or even what they are.
What do Umar and Abdullah have to do with this? Simply, in the earlier times and in lesser-developed communities, people had no questions about food ingredients and food products because they were always produced locally, from basic ingredients, we call scratch. For most of us, that is no longer the case. However, as Muslims, our food laws have not changed and must continue to be observed today and tomorrow, just as they were observed yesterday. As the Muslim world becomes intertwined with the non-Muslim world, it becomes incumbent upon Muslims to learn more about food and its components.
Nowadays, cows are fed or injected with hormones to fatten them up quickly or to increase their milk production. They are also given antibiotics to immunize them against diseases. Eggs are injected with antibiotics even before they develop into embryos. Chickens are also fed complex formulated diets containing hormones to increase egg production. New varieties of grain are being developed to resist pests and increase yields. Pesticides are used to kill insects and bugs that compete with us for fruits and vegetables. And less food is being wasted as new uses are being found for previously unusable by-products.
All these factors have an effect on the food we eat. As Muslims, we must make choices about what is acceptable to eat and what is not. We need the help of our scholars and imams to distinguish Halal from haram. And we need scientists who understand food science, food technology, and food production, and the requirements of Halal, to work with the food industry to make sure the food we eat is acceptable.
It is not uncommon to find pork fat, known as lard, in cookies and cakes, or as a frying medium for potatoes or other products. It is not uncommon to find pork meat such as bacon and ham being cooked on the same grill as beef and fish. It is not uncommon to find gelatin made from pork skins being mixed with gelatin made from beef tissues and used in marshmallows, ice cream, yogurt and desserts. It is also not uncommon to find meat and chicken from slaughterhouses where the slaughterman does not recite the name of GOD and may not even believe in GOD.
How do all these considerations impact the Muslim consumer? It certainly makes the choices hard and life difficult. Life should not be difficult, especially for food and nutrition. It is not only affecting the Muslims in America, Canada and Europe, it is also affecting the Muslims in the Muslim countries of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Far East and the Muslim minorities in Russia, China, India and elsewhere. It is affecting all Muslims. Have you seen a product, which you knew to be haram here, only to find that same product in a Muslim country? How can that be? Was it made differently or was it being smuggled in. Or was it a matter of getting away with something due to lax diligence or deception?
In the 1970.s, Muslims undoubtedly became concerned about this situation. In Chicago, there was a group of Muslims who considered what was going on and searched for a solution. They thought, if only there were an organization, which could define the Halal and haram foods and ingredients, and could teach the food industry what they needed to know to produce Halal foods. Perhaps they could even develop procedures for producing Halal food and could offer a certification when they were sure the food product was unquestionably Halal. Maybe even a label could be printed on the product to let the consumer know this product was supervised and determined to be Halal. In 1982, 7 Muslim food scientists, nutritionists and religious scholars formed the Islamic Food And Nutrition Council of America, soon to become known as IFANCA.
These visionaries determined there were two areas of concern, meat and ingredients. In the area of meat, they understood there was one way of producing meat and poultry that was unquestionably Halal to all Muslims, namely, slaughter by a Muslim pronouncing Takbir and Tasmiyyah on every animal or bird being slaughtered. Of course, the slaughtered animal must be alive before being slaughtered, must bleed quickly and completely, must die of slaughtering and must be dead before any processing can start. The meat must be segregated from pork and meat slaughtered by a non-Muslim. There should be no questionable materials added to the meat. This was straightforward and easy to implement. But what about facilities producing beef and pork. How would they produce Halal beef? And what about poultry being slaughtered by a machine? Was ‘Takbir and Tasmiyyah. necessary? Who would perform it? Must it be live or could it be taped?
The area of ingredients was another matter. Here, there were 1,000.s of suppliers from around the world. Some products may contain a dozen ingredients produced from 100.s of raw materials. Several questions were raised and discussed, such as: How could the raw material be traced? Could it have been from pork? Is cheese produced using an enzyme from a pig okay? It was only a small amount of enzyme used in cheese. What about alcohol? Are flavors that have been extracted with alcohol or mixed with alcohol to help the application acceptable? It is not like drinking whiskey. They were talking about 0.1% alcohol used to maintain the consistent quality of a strawberry drink, cakes, ice cream, etc. Sound complicated? It is!
The visionaries at IFANCA considered all these matters. They discussed among themselves, deliberated with prominent religious scholars around the world, developed procedures, held conferences and symposia, and began to contact and work with the food industry. This was not a one-time deal. The processing continues to change and the ingredients continue to become more complicated. The scholarly community is continually contacted to discuss new developments.
In 1983, IFANCA published a book, Islamic Dietary Laws and Practices. This book served to educate Muslims about food ingredients and non-Muslims about Halal. It also included health and nutrition information as well as statistics about the Muslim world and other useful information. A newsletter under the name of Islamic Perspective was introduced. It contained valuable information on the fiqh surrounding Halal and the issues faced by Muslim consumers.
In an effort to help the Muslim consumer make food selections, IFANCA began publishing Halal/haram ingredient information and even published some specific product information. However, it became very clear that the rapid changes in the food industry made these lists obsolete in a hurry. There was no way of keeping up with uncertified products and no way to keep the consumer informed of the change in product status. In 1984, IFANCA developed the Crescent M symbol to be used on products certified by IFANCA as Halal. The first product to pass the strict IFANCA guidelines was not even a food product. It was Crest toothpaste. (Note: since that time, the formula for Crest has been changed and it is no longer certified.) With certification, IFANCA would be able to keep track of the products and with the Crescent M symbol, the consumer could determine if the product is Halal.
Throughout the years, IFANCA has reached out to other organizations and individuals to work together toward the common goal of making authentic Halal foods available to Muslims and non-Muslims at a reasonable cost. It soon became evident, this work could not be done by volunteers. In 1990, IFANCA established a full time staff to enhance the effort to produce Halal foods.
Operating out of donated office space, IFANCA set up shop with a staff of one. Procedures for Halal slaughter were formalized. Procedures for processed foods and ingredients were formalized. Brochures and information about Halal were developed and distributed to the industry. Both the industry and the consumers had a place they could contact to learn about Halal and how to produce Halal food products. IFANCA fielded many inquiries from consumers asking about ingredients and products.
During this time, the industry was ignoring the domestic Muslim consumer and concentrating on the export market. IFANCA worked with the USDA, Chambers of Commerce, state agencies and certifying bodies in the Muslim countries to develop guidelines and certify products for export to these countries. While working on products for export, IFANCA always tried to guide companies into producing Halal certified products for the domestic market. However, with the lack of demand by US Muslims, the companies had little incentive to respond. IFANCA kept playing a key role of educating the food industry by contributing articles to the industry magazines and technical magazines. At the same time demand by the Muslim countries increased to supply Halal certified products. IFANCA continued to work with the food industry to make Halal products available to Muslims around the world. The tide started to change towards Halal markets. In 1997, IFANCA moved to the north side of Chicago, it was certifying over 300 products produced by over 100 companies, mainly for export. At this time, IFANCA office was still being managed on an ad hoc basis by volunteers and part time help. Over the next three years IFANCA activities increased significantly. By 2000 the staff increased to 5 full-time and another 5 part-time workers. The number of certified companies increased to 150 and there are several thousand Halal certified products available to the processors and the consumer.
There are many success stories in the IFANCA files, including working with the US Armed Forces to make Halal meals available to Muslims in the Armed Forces, developing Halal certified military meals, working with legislators in New Jersey to pass the Halal Food Law, developing Halal guidelines for the USDA school lunch program and developing Halal gelatin. For more on the development of Halal gelatin, see the accompanying article. This is an example of the effort IFANCA expends to assure the Muslim consumer they will find the Halal products they need. A key part of the IFANCA strategy is to identify important needs and to work with the industry and consumer groups to develop products that meet those needs. While some of this can be done in a short time, others take many years of sustained effort to complete.
On one hand IFANCA is working with the industry to establish Halal production requirements and on the other hand it is working with the Islamic religious scholars to clarify the contemporary issues facing the Muslim consumer. IFANCA will continue to work with the Islamic scholars to determine the Halal status of foods, processed through newer technologies, such as food from genetically modified organisms (GMO); nature of animal feed, use of novel ingredients from non-conventional sources; new methods of slaughtering the animals and other complex issues.
IFANCA will also continue to develop guidelines for various other segments of the food service industry; such as airlines, school and college cafeterias, penitentiary kitchens, and hospital cafeterias.
In North America, Halal food production and distribution is still in its infancy and opportunities exist for Muslims entrepreneurs to claim their right share of this niche market.
IFANCA will continue to assist in developing Halal food businesses. IFANCA will also continue its Halal awareness programs towards industry and the Muslim consumer.
Muslim consumer has a key role to play in the overall picture of Halal. Consumer has to reach out to the industry and demand Halal products. At the Halal conference, last year, we brought the industry and the community together at one table during the banquet. This created a special atmosphere of open discussions between the procedure and the consumer without the middlemen. Again this year IFANCA will be holding a similar conference in Los Angeles.
We have always appreciated the support of the Muslim consumer for their valuable suggestions, which help us improve our services. Similarly Muslim consumers. inquiries with food producers have been a tremendous help in opening the industry’s eyes to the opportunities available to them in producing halal certified food products for our community worldwide. [RMO]